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Wikipedia probe exposes an Israeli stealth PR firm that worked for scammers

Shining rare spotlight on murky business of online reputation management, Wikipedia editor points finger at Percepto – an Israeli firm that helps wealthy clients bury dubious pasts

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

Wikipedia logo alongside the logo for Percepto (Composite image by Times of Israel)
Wikipedia logo alongside the logo for Percepto (Composite image by Times of Israel)

It’s no secret that you can’t trust a lot of what you read online. Globally, 86 percent of internet users say they have been taken in, at least temporarily, by online fake news. Eighty-three percent say that fake news adversely affects political discourse in their country. However, due to the ease of being anonymous online, few know who is actually behind much of the misinformation or misleading information on the internet.

That is why a recent article published in The Signpost, Wikipedia’s internal newspaper for English-language editors of the online encyclopedia, is so significant. Entitled “Special Report: Paid editing with political connections,” the article names and shames an Israeli firm that it alleges engaged in the “sophisticated” use of sockpuppets, or deceptive online identities, to edit Wikipedia entries on behalf of paying clients, without disclosing that it had been paid, in direct violation of Wikipedia’s rules.

The company, known as Percepto (formerly Veribo), allegedly edited Wikipedia entries having to do with a Canadian charity that later became embroiled in a scandal involving Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, according to the Signpost article. The company also allegedly edited Wikipedia entries about Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs, and assisted the British PR firm Bell Pottinger with a highly divisive PR campaign in South Africa that led to the British PR firm’s disgrace and collapse.

When asked by The Times of Israel about its alleged Wikipedia edits, Percepto replied that “as a company policy, Percepto maintains its clients’ right for privacy and therefore does not discuss its clients with third parties.” Percepto also said that it holds “a high ethical standard and only take[s] on projects which do not breach our code of conduct.”

The Times of Israel can further reveal, based on public sources, that in addition to the clients mentioned in the Signpost article, Percepto, whose tagline is “influencing reality to defend your reputation,” worked for clients from Israel’s fraudulent binary options industry, helping to bury online criticism against them.

It also worked for an Israeli company, NIP Global (formerly known as N.I.P. Nikuv International Projects), that was convicted in Israel in 2016 of bribing a foreign official in Lesotho.

Maseru, the capital of Lesotho. An Israeli company was convicted for bribing a government official of the African country. (CC BY, OER Africa, Flickr)ab

Percepto, which is registered in Israel under the name Cyclicom Israel Ltd., is not the only company in Israel, or worldwide, engaged in online reputation management. But the article in Wikipedia’s The Signpost offers a rare glimpse into how such companies, which usually operate in the shadows, go about their work.

Such companies, which not only edit Wikipedia entries for their clients but also ensure that Google searches return flattering results, can be understood to be part of what scholars have described as a growing “transnational uncivil society” — a network of paid Western enablers who help corrupt political operatives and business people launder their reputations worldwide.

Blocked by Wikipedia

Founded in 2001 by Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia grew out of the American open-source software movement, which rests on the assumption that people will collaborate on a project without being paid to do so, out of a desire to contribute to the common good. Anyone can edit Wikipedia, and much of its success relies on the fact that the vast majority of editors, most of them strangers to each other, adhere to the spirit of collaborative truth-seeking.

As a result, any kind of paid editing of Wikipedia is viewed as a conflict of interest and frowned upon within the community of Wikipedia editors. According to Wikipedia’s terms of use, editors with a financial conflict of interest must disclose the fact. Some SEO and online reputation management firms try to skirt this rule, but if they are caught, their accounts are blocked and they are added to a blacklist of paid editing companies.

This is what happened to the Israeli online reputation firm Percepto (aka Veribo or Cyclicom).

Veribo’s Tel Aviv office in February 2016 (Facebook screenshot)

According to the author of the Signpost article, a US-based retired professor of finance who goes by the handle Smallbones (The Times of Israel knows his real identity), he was first alerted to Percepto when someone editing a Wikipedia entry about the WE Charity in Canada noticed that one of the other editors of the entry had made a strange editing mistake, raising suspicions that he was a paid editor. This led the editor of the WE Charity entry to consult with several more senior Wikipedia editors, who launched an investigation.

The WE Charity is known for its star-studded mega-events for teenagers that raise awareness and money for impoverished children in the developing world.

From left, WE Mascot and WE Charity co-founders, Marc Kielburger and Craig Kielburger, walk the WE Carpet during WE Day Toronto at the Scotiabank Arena on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019, in Toronto. (Photo by Arthur Mola/Invision for WE Day/AP Images)

In June 2020, the government of Canada awarded a grant to the charity to administer a $1 billion program that would allow students to earn money fighting the coronavirus pandemic.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press via AP)

But the grant was awarded through a non-competitive process that raised suspicions of undue influence, as Trudeau’s mother, wife and brother had all previously collectively received hundreds of thousands of dollars for appearing at WE Charity events. The scandal continues to reverberate through Canadian politics and almost led to new elections.

Prior to the scandal, one of the editors of a Wikipedia entry related to the charity appeared to have accidentally inserted a link to a Dropbox file in one of their edits:

File:///C:/Users/User/Dropbox (Veribo)/Delivery/Active Clients restored/We/Wikipedia/May 2019 project/ME to WE wiki page – phase 3.docx#%20ftn5

According to the Signpost article written by Smallbones, “this file path or link looks like a Dropbox file for the company Veribo, possibly related to a customer named WE about the Wikipedia article on the for-profit firm ME to WE.”

WE Charity contacted The Times of Israel after the publication of this article saying: “WE Charity did not hire Percepto or anyone associated with Percepto to edit WE associated Wikipedia pages. In fact, we had never heard of Percepto until reading your article.”

WE Charity suggested to The Times of Israel an alternative explanation for why the blocked editors may have been editing pages associated with their charity. Noting that many of the edits to the WE Charity-related articles were minor, a spokesperson for WE Charity wrote that “such minor edits could logically be explained by the fact that Percepto chose to work on an unrelated project to build the credibility of the editing accounts.”

Veribo was the prior name of Percepto. The strange link led to a Wikipedia investigation into whether this account and others with similar characteristics were in fact multiple sockpuppets belonging to Veribo/Percepto. Sockpuppets are multiple accounts created by a single user for a deceptive purpose.

Some of the data used in this investigation was “technical” and accessible only to checkusers, a special type of Wikipedia administrator.

The editors discovered that several of the twelve sockpuppets they determined were linked to Veribo/Percepto had a second major area of interest beyond the WE Charity. Several of them had edited entries on prominent Ukrainian and Russian oligarchs. Many of these edits were flattering to their subjects.

“Editors blocked in the same sockpuppet investigation edited articles on Russian and Ukrainian businessmen Viktor Vekselberg, Boris Lozhkin, and Gennady Gazin,” Smallbones wrote in his report for The Signpost.

In an email to The Times of Israel, Smallbones enumerated other Wikipedia entries that had been edited by the blocked accounts that Wikipedia determined were related to Percepto (which included Issack.build, MarthaLetter, HenryFriedberg, Dangioo, BodakPop, Kaufmn.lonnie, Brettgillberg, BeastieBoy1, Ajax102 and VelvetBrown09).

These entries included Adam Daniel Rotfeld, Yosyf Zisels, The Jewish Confederation of Ukraine, Hromadske.TV, Mountain Jews, Alexander Mashkevitch, Hennadiy Korban, William Rosenwald, Michael Schudrich, L. L. Zamenhof, History of the Jews in Azerbaijan, Luděk Sekyra, Ukrinform, Kyivstar, Nova Ushytsia, Qırmızı Qəsəbə, Igor Veselkin, Yakov Zevin, 1+1 Media Group, Sergiu Hart, Sergey Mikhalkov, Gebhard Ullmann, Jaffa Port, Kande (film), God [sic] Nisanov, Nasheed, VTB Bank, Lev Avnerovich Leviev, Söyembikä Tower, Cabinda Province, Cabaçal River, European Journalism Centre, Party lists in the 2017 New Zealand general election, ICORES, Cabouco, Theodor W. Adorno, Vitaly Malkin, Stanislav Cherchesov, Penis enlargement and Moscow State University of Medicine and Dentistry.

Anyone can edit a Wikipedia entry and even if an entry is suspected to have been edited for pay, that does not mean the subject of the entry was the client or that the client was seeking reputation management. Indeed, some of those whose entries were edited by the now-blocked editors linked to Percepto may have been entirely unaware of the edits and/or negatively affected by them.

The blocked editors took a particular interest in Russia and Ukraine. According to Smallbones, many of the edits were neutral, while some were flattering and others unflattering.

“Their general editing strategy appears to be quite sophisticated and aimed at long-term influence over article content rather than short-term results. They tended to edit fairly conservatively, with major changes spread out over time, sometimes involving multiple user accounts.”

“But they do have their biases,” Smallbones told The Times of Israel by email.

Lviv’s mayor Andriy Sadovyi at a press conference on Feb. 22, 2014 (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

For instance, one of the blocked Percepto editors, Kaufmn.lonnie, added a lot of  unflattering information about a man named Andriy Sadovyi, the pro-European mayor of Lviv, Ukraine, who appears to have won reelection on October 25.

It is unclear who the client or clients were for these edits to Russian and Ukrainian subjects.

But an edit to an entry on the Rinat Akhmetov Humanitarian Center hints at one possibility.

In that entry, the now-blocked alleged sockpuppet named Isaack.build once again made the mistake of linking to an apparent Dropbox file, Smallbones wrote in his article.

File:///C:/Users/b oph/Dropbox (Veribo)/Delivery/Active Clients restored/Ruslan Baisarov/Wikipedia/8918 Baisarov Akhmetov Humanitarian Ophir 100.docx#%20ftnref1

According to Smallbones, “this file path or link looks like a Dropbox file for the company Veribo, possibly related to a customer named Ruslan Baisarov about the Wikipedia article on the Rinat Akhmetov Humanitarian Center.”

Ruslan Baisarov is a Chechen businessman thought to be a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Times of Israel sent him an email asking if he had been a client of Veribo but did not receive a reply by the time of publication.

Smallbones noticed another interesting fact about the blocked editors.

“Many of the blocked sockpuppets edited according to an 8am-5pm Sunday-Thursday Israeli work week,” he wrote.

Working with Bell Pottinger

The Signpost article also noted, on the basis of media reports, that Percepto had worked as a subcontractor for the now-defunct political lobbying firm Bell Pottinger, which the New York Times has described as a “PR firm for despots and rogues.”

In 2016, the prominent British PR firm began working for Atul, Ajay, and Tony Gupta, three Indian-born businessmen brothers who were close to South African president Jacob Zuma. They were often described in the media as having “captured” the South African state, in other words, having co-opted the government for the purpose of their own enrichment.

In 2019 the US Treasury Department sanctioned the Gupta brothers for allegedly stealing “hundreds of millions of dollars through illegal deals with the South African government, obfuscated by a shadowy network of shell companies and associates linked to the family.”

Veribo/Percepto has acknowledged that it was hired by Bell Pottinger in April 2016 to help with its PR campaign on behalf of the Guptas. The campaign sparked outrage in South Africa for its apparent attempt to deflect attention away from the Guptas by stoking racial tensions and resentment against white elites through the use of slogans like “white monopoly capital” and “economic apartheid.”

In this photo taken Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018, eight suspects, including a Gupta family member, sit in the dock where they appeared in a regional court in Bloemfonten, South Africa, as part of a probe into the alleged embezzlement of state funds earmarked for a dairy project. (AP Photo)

Veribo/Percepto’s role in the campaign was to suppress negative Google results about the Guptas, the company said. Percepto’s CEO Ran Blayer told South Africa’s The Daily Maverick in July 2017 that the company now regretted its involvement.

“We learned earlier this year of what is really going on in South Africa and terminated work on Gupta/Oakby. We have since read more of what is going on in South Africa. This is shocking and unacceptable to us. We now regret our involvement with these individuals,” he said.

Bell Pottinger’s conduct in South Africa led to its expulsion, in September 2017, from the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) of the UK.

“Bell Pottinger has brought the PR and communications industry into disrepute with its actions and has received the harshest possible sanctions,” the director general of the PRCA said. “The PRCA has never before passed down such a damning indictment of an agency’s behaviour.”

The company subsequently lost most of its clients and went bust.

A Facebook post from February 2018 in which Veribo announced it was changing its name to Percepto (Facebook screenshot)

Veribo did not go bust, nor was it scolded by any Israeli professional associations. It did, however, change its name to Percepto in February 2018, explaining in a Facebook post that the name change was part of an “intensive, introspective brand reassessment process.”

From online gambling to politics

Cyclicom Israel, the Israeli company behind Veribo/Percepto, was founded in 2007. Its owner was an offshore company (initially registered in the Channel Islands and later in the British Virgin Islands) called Cyclicom Holdings. The identity of the ultimate beneficial owner of Cyclicom Holdings Ltd. is anyone’s guess.

The company began its life running a comparison shopping website as well as an online gaming affiliation business, meaning it helped drive traffic to online gambling sites.

By August 2012, Cyclicom.com had changed its name to Veribo.com and was marketing itself as a service that suppressed negative search results. “Don’t be held back by those old, negative results on search engines,” the website’s home page said.

A screenshot of the Veribo.com homepage from April 2013

An illustration on the company’s homepage showed the types of results Veribo could help clients suppress: “John Doe corruption” and “John Doe scandal.”

A 2014 Israeli lawsuit demonstrates how Veribo’s practice of suppressing negative Google results may have led to people becoming victims of fraud.

In December 2014, Veribo (aka Cyclicom Israel) sued WGM Services Ltd. and Win Global Markets Inc., the companies behind the now-defunct binary options website EZTrader.com, for failure to pay a $5,300 monthly retainer.

In November 2016, the United States Securities and Exchange Commission settled a lawsuit against EZTrader, which it had accused of misleading investors and of violating securities laws. The SEC required the company to disgorge $1.5 million in revenues it obtained from over 4,000 US investors as well as pay a $200,000 fine. The now-defunct EZTrader had hired celebrities like soccer coach Hernan Crespo as spokespeople.

In Veribo’s 2014 complaint, it said that EZTrader had needed reputation management services because the internet was full of negative comments from customers who had been burnt.

“The defendant’s site had gotten a lot of criticism and online reviews that were not positive (to put it mildly). As a result, anyone who searched for EZTrader would come across posts in various forums warning other Internet users to stay away.”

Veribo said it had provided reputation management services to EZTrader, updating its Crunchbase profile, managing its LinkedIn page and creating dozens of web pages related to EZtrader. The lawsuit was ultimately settled, with WGM agreeing to pay Veribo $7,000.

PR for a company convicted of bribery

In April 2018 a company known as NIP Global issued a press release. One of its executives, Stephen Bekker, would be giving a talk to government bureaucrats in Nigeria about developing national ID systems. NIP Global is an Israeli company that has been operating in Africa since the 1990s, managing countries’ civil registration systems, national ID cards and e-passports, as well as voter rolls.

But NIP Global, previously known as N.I.P.-Nikuv International Projects (“Nikuv” for short), had developed a bad reputation in recent years. Opposition figures in both Zambia and Zimbabwe accused the company of using high-tech methods to rig their elections. NIP Global has denied these accusations.

In December 2016, Israeli prosecutors found the company guilty of bribing a government official in Lesotho in order to obtain a government contract. As part of a plea deal, NIP Global was fined NIS 4.5 million ($1.15 million).

NIP Global was one of Veribo/Percepto’s clients.

The decline of journalism and the rise of misinformation

In democratic societies, a free press has traditionally been seen as the “watchdog of democracy.” But today, as the journalism profession continues to decline, public relations has rushed in to fill the vacuum, according to Communications professor Sue Curry Jansen in her 2017 book “Stealth Communications: The Spectacular Rise of Public Relations.”

Public relations professionals in the US now outnumber journalists by six to one. About 30 percent of the output of the global PR industry has become particularly manipulative and dishonest, Jansen claims. It includes practices like “the use of PR in international conflicts, PR campaigns designed to mislead the public about environmental issues and PR used to advance or undermine social movements,” as well as PR that abuses the anonymity of the internet to “blog for dollars, troll the comment sections of major publications, manufacture ‘likes,’ host astroturfed websites, and engage in other forms of ‘sockpuppetry’ (deceptive use of online identities).”

A former employee of an Israeli online reputation company, who asked not to be named, told The Times of Israel that while there is a place for reputation management services, some companies cross the line of what’s ethical, in his view.

“A good candidate for reputation management would be someone who made a mistake or failed at a business or whose family member became embroiled in some type of scandal,” he said. “But when the core of your business is working for malicious actors who are seeking to suppress information about themselves, that’s not a good business to be in.” 

He added, “you’re subverting the information landscape and helping people get away with bad actions. It’s not illegal as far as I know, but you’re causing harm.”

Some scholars have described PR firms that work for crooks and kleptocrats as participants in a “transnational uncivil society” that “embeds autocrats within a dense network of institutions, legal protections and global spaces that are intended to obfuscate their transgressions back home and conceal the origins of their personal fortunes.”

Veribo/Percepto is not the only Israeli firm that has done stealthy PR work on behalf of questionable clients. The Times of Israel has previously reported that another Israeli firm, Psy-Group, allegedly carried out a harassment campaign against anti-corruption activists in Ukraine, as well as pitched covert election manipulation services to the 2016 Trump campaign.

The Times of Israel sent an email to Percepto asking whether the allegations in The Signpost article were correct and how it responds to respond to critics who say it is suppressing information about malicious actors and helping them get away with misdeeds.

Percepto responded: “As a company policy, Percepto maintains its clients’ right for privacy and therefore does not discuss its clients with third parties.

“Our company works with a wide range of reputable businesspeople and enterprises in a variety of sectors. We help them promote their key messages online to relevant audiences, improve their online branding, and support their online marketing efforts. In some cases, this may include helping them to address issues which have challenged their reputation, thereby rebuilding their ability to engage a wide array of stakeholders and regain their trust.

“As a company, and as individuals we hold a high ethical standard and only take on projects which do not breach our code of conduct. Therefore, we make a point of working with clients who we believe deserve the opportunity to share their agenda and perspectives.”

Wikipedians remain watchful

As for Smallbones, he said he is committed to keeping unscrupulous PR firms off of Wikipedia.

“Of course there are many companies, frauds, grifters, and kleptocrats that have things to hide and would like to use similar online reputation management firms to edit Wikipedia,” he wrote in the Signpost article.

“Some of them may be willing to spend much more money on it than the WE Charity could. Completely stopping paid advocacy on Wikipedia may be an impossible task, but it is a task that Wikipedians continue to diligently work on.”

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